Christine Lawrence journeys to North End and discovers a compelling and powerful autobiography from local author, Steven George.
It’s a wet January morning, I’m sat in Café Nut in North End, planning to write about this less fashionable part of the city. I worked in North End in the 1980s and remember it as an area rich in multi-cultures: the established ‘older’ generation mixing with youngsters with families, people from all over the world, some homeless, some sofa-surfing, many in comfortable family homes for several generations.
A small poster in the window drew me into the café, a hand-written sign with a photograph advertising Heartless Too, the autobiography of a local author. Copies of the book were on sale at the counter so I bought one with my coffee and settled down to write about North End. I couldn’t resist taking a peek at the book first. An hour later I hadn’t written a word of my own but couldn’t put the book down.
Heartless Too is a “true story of a disturbing journey through boarding schools, prisons and special hospitals. It is the story of a disastrous adoption, resulting in sexual, emotional and physical abuse.” Her story is harrowing and is clearly told without being blurred by emotion. There are clear accounts of her early years prior to and during her being sent away to boarding schools. She interweaves each section of her life experiences in a compelling way. I felt she was sitting in the room with me, telling her story over a coffee.
Janella’s story evoked my anger. I was shamed and shocked to read that her first admission to a mental hospital was to the same ward I had worked in a few years later. Her experiences there made me re-assess my own memories of that time and my part in the treatment of the mentally-ill women I worked with in the 1970s. I hope I helped to make positive changes at that time.
Janella’s journey took her to Knowle Hospital, Broadmoor, Holloway Prison and Rampton. The power that her adoptive and abusive foster father had over her and the influence he had over the hospital authorities denied any right Janella should have had to be heard or to be assessed appropriately. I believe her life story would have been completely different had she been brought up in a loving family rather that an abusive, unnatural one. She was an intelligent, talented child and the mere fact that she survived 24 years of abuse by her family, schools and mental institutions shows how strong and mentally sound she was.
I say ‘she was’ because Janella is no longer a woman. His name is now Steven George and it’s his photograph on the back cover of the book. Writing about his transition, Steven says his “gender problems faded away in the complete flood of all that happened (to me)”. But this is not a book about trans-gender issues. Steven is clear that the sexual abuse he experienced did not predetermine his gender identity. When he was a little girl, Steven always wanted to be a boy; indeed, when he was small, he believed he was a boy and was horrified as he grew up to find that he was not.
Steven hopes that the book will inform people of life inside institutions such as Rampton and Broadmoor. He is clear about the fact that many of the patients he met in those institutions had not committed crimes – they were not ‘The Criminally Insane’ as so many are labelled by the media. The only crime Janella committed was a cry for help when no-one would listen to her or take her part against her abusers. She was fourteen years old. Fourteen years old and forced to spend time in adult institutions.
I feel immense respect and admiration for this author. Steven’s account of his life is readable, clear and gripping. It’s no easy feat to write about any single event of abuse. This is an account of twenty-four years or more of abuse by those who should have been protecting him – his adoptive parents, teachers, the police, doctors, nurses, and several institutions. His book is a record of events and it needs to be read.
As soon as I’d finished reading the book, I wanted to share it with everyone. I was about to pass my copy on to others, when I remembered how I’d felt when people told me they’d loaned their copy of my own novel to their friends.
Now I’m back in the cafe in North End, writing this. When I leave here I will have purchased another few copies of the book to give away to my friends.
Heartless Too by Janella can be purchased from Cafe Nut, 81 London Road, North End, Portsmouth, PO2 0BH. It is also available on Amazon as a paperback. Steven George now lives in North End and is a regular visitor to Cafe Nut. He is a talented poet and author and I am sure that this is not the last we have heard from him.
Photography by Richard Williams.